Caretaker boss Zeljko Sopic has urged Al Ain to ignore the Abu Dhabi derby hype and solely concentrate on magnifying their own strengths in the critical clash with Al Wahda.
The Boss’ first match without Zoran Mamic, who defected late last month to Saudi Professional League holders Al Hilal, saw them register a frustrating goalless draw with lowly Emirates Club. They will hope to narrow the five-point gap to unbeaten leaders Sharjah on Sunday when Henk ten Cate’s revitalised Clarets come to Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
“It is very important to focus on preparing ourselves as required, before thinking about the opponent ‘s style,” said ex-Under-23s manager Sopic.
“We trust in the ability of the Al Ain players to show their best and achieve a strong result.
“We are five points behind the leaders and have a game in hand. I wish success to the team in achieving this goal.”
Wahda finished second behind the Boss last term, but an awful first half of the campaign saw Laurentiu Reghecampf sacked in November.
Al Jazira icon ten Cate then answered an emergency call. The 64-year-old’s first top-flight game in charge witnessed four first-half goals scored in an eventual 4-2 triumph against Ittihad Kalba when the winter break ended.
“I always enjoy playing big games,” said the 2015/16 President’s Cup and 2016/17 AGL winner. “This is also the same for the players, and it makes things easier for the coach.
“The players have the motivation to play these games and provide the best level.
“I love Al Ain, I have many good memories. I played seven games and I never lost there.”
Arabian Gulf League side Al Wahda broke ranks on Saturday and demanded “an emergency general assembly” to discuss the future of the current UAE Football Association leadership, in the wake of a disappointing Asian Cup 2019.
Dreary football and mixed results under the stewardship of, now departed, coach Albert Zaccheroni fed into a continental tournament during which the hosts stumbled out at the semi-final stage. Disquiet about the stewardship of president Marwin bin Ghalita – elected on April 2016 for a four-year term – was solidified further at the weekend.
“Al Wahda demands that the board of directors of the UAE Football Association clarify the facts and circumstances of the national football team during the period leading up to the Asian Cup, during the participation in the tournament, the previous period and impart the facts transparently to the public,” last term’s runners-up tweeted in Arabic.
“Al Wahda believes that an emergency general assembly to renew or cast confidence on the board of directors of the current football federation has become urgent in the current period after the facts are presented in full and all the scenes in the past period have been revealed.”
For their part, a meeting of the UAE FA board of directors at their Al Khawaneej headquarters saw voicing of contrition about the Asian Cup and “desire to work towards preparing” the UAE to make World Cup 2022.
A statement said: “The UAE Football Association stressed that the ambition was the arrival of the team to the final and to achieve the title of the championship to write a new history of the UAE football, but football runs to its own logic.
📋: يطالب نادي الوحدة، مجلس إدارة اتحاد الكرة أن يوضح الحقائق وملابسات ما دار في المنتخب الوطني لكرة القدم خلال الفترة التي سبقت بطولة "كأس آسيا - الإمارات 2019"، وخلال مشاركته في البطولة وكل ما يلي المنتخب الوطني في الفترة السابقة وتمليك الحقائق بشفافية للرأي العام وأسرة الكرة. pic.twitter.com/2Crq3i1Y0H
📋: يطالب نادي الوحدة، مجلس إدارة اتحاد الكرة أن يوضح الحقائق وملابسات ما دار في المنتخب الوطني لكرة القدم خلال الفترة التي سبقت بطولة "كأس آسيا - الإمارات 2019"، وخلال مشاركته في البطولة وكل ما يلي المنتخب الوطني في الفترة السابقة وتمليك الحقائق بشفافية للرأي العام وأسرة الكرة. pic.twitter.com/2Crq3i1Y0H— Al Wahda FC (@AlWahdaFCC) February 9, 2019
“The Association noted the need to take advantage of this participation and continue to work towards preparing the national team for qualifying for the World Cup 2022.”
The UAE FA are still yet to confirm friendly opponents for next month’s international window.
Former Borussia Dortmund, Netherlands and Saudi Arabia coach Bert van Marwijk would be interested in taking over the UAE.
The Whites are on the lookout for a new boss after Alberto Zaccheroni’s contract expired in the wake of last month’s painful semi-final exit, on home soil, at Asian Cup 2019. Much conjecture surrounds the current status of this search, with calls to change leadership at the UAE Football Association still resonating in Arabic media.
Once this pandemonium halts, the experienced Van Marwijk could be interested in opening talks about potentially taking the post. The 66-year-old gained widespread renown when he led his native Netherlands to defeat at World Cup 2010, before earning a sterling – if not spiky – reputation in the Middle East when departing the Green Falcons within days of ending their 12-year absence by making 2018’s edition.
Van Marwijk then underwhelmed with a group-stage exit with Australia, but is not short of other options. Widespread reports in the Middle East have placed him as a leading contender to succeed Carlos Queiroz at Iran.
The UAE are in no rush to make a permanent appointment. FIFA’s next international window opens in March, while the AFC’s second-round qualifiers for World Cup 2022 commence in September.
If the current regime, led by embattled president Marwan bin Ghalita, survives until then, they must get the next appointment right.
Argentina’s Edgardo Bauza failed to make World Cup 2018, while negative football stained a reign of Zaccheroni that does gain some credit because of progression to last year’s Gulf Cup showpiece and a last-four spot in the continental event.
The Whites find themselves in a lull, at present. Their ‘Golden Generation’ has lost some of its sheen because of recent failures, plus serious injuries to 2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil – restricted to a ‘super-sub’ role last month – and 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman.
The next man must return these talents to their best, plus bring through hot prospects such as Al Jazira defenders Khalifa Al Hammadi and Mohammed Al Attas.
This is where Van Marwijk’s sterling work with the Saudis resonates.
He took over an underperforming rabble in August 2015, transforming them back into one of Asia’s strongest sides.
The ex-Feyenoord tactician was hailed a hero in the wake of September 2017’s decisive qualifying triumph against Japan, only for residual tensions with the Saudi Arabian Football Federation about a reluctance to spend time in the Kingdom to blow up.
Van Marwijk was then appointed as head coach of the Socceroos in January 2018. His new nation, however, would finish bottom of Group C with only one point from three matches.
Criticism about a failure to cure Australia’s problem up top followed.
Other possible contenders for the UAE position include Morocco’s Herve Renard. The stylish Frenchman was, sporadically, present at the Asian Cup as an observer, though is likely to take serious convincing to abandon the Atlas Lions during an Africa Cup of Nations year.
Ex-Al Ain boss Zlatko Dalic was, optimistically, linked with succeeding Zaccheroni mid-tournament last month. He would be a dream appointment for the UAE, but will be even more tricky to prise away from Croatia after leading his country to defeat at World Cup 2018’s decider.